He will become the first living Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran to receive the Medal of Honor later this month. Former Army Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, a Lyndonville native, will receive the honor from President Donald Trump during a White House ceremony June 25. On Tuesday, he met with local media to discuss an honor he considers a tribute not to him exclusively, but to his many comrades.
Bellavia will be recognized for his actions during Operation Phantom Fury, in Fallujah, Iraq in November 2004. His platoon was pinned down by enemy gunfire when he went house-to-house, providing cover which allowed his platoon to escape their position safely. He also engaged in one-on-one combat with several insurgents who were firing grenades on his comrades.
"The last part of that fight was something that is with me. It's really tough," Bellavia said, when asked about what went through his mind as he singlehandedly killed a handful of insurgents. "I never thought I'd probably spend the rest of my life in that moment, but... I was fighting for my life. It's what happened."
Bellavia spoke in a humbled tone during his news conference, held inside a local Army recruiting station. Bellavia, who is better known more recently as a local radio talk show host, often times deflected credit and acknowledged many of his comrades, some of whom have died in subsequent tours. He also spoke of the importance of bringing home those who served under him.
"I was older than the rest of the guys that I served with. I had college behind me. I was a father. I was a husband," he said. "Most of these guys were young. They were 19 and 18 years old. I loved them like they were my own kids. I still love them. They are my family."
Bellavia, whose service also included a tour in Kosovo, thanked the Army for helping him through a personal struggle, when his then-newborn son was in need of surgery amidst health problems. The Army helped him by setting him up with a recruiting position.
"If there's anything that can come out of this, hopefully young people in Western New York will see their country as more worthy than anything else in their life," he said. "We are a very special institution, the United States Army. I encourage as many people to look at that as an opportunity to better themselves but, more importantly, better their communities and their country."
Bellavia admits his pending honor has already changed his life forever. But he's not seeking glory. He continued during his news conference to credit those who battled with him, and those who lost their lives in the line of duty.
He also acknowledged the controversy of US combat actions in Iraq but defended those who have served in that campaign.
"The narrative of the Iraq War has been well-established but the Iraq War veteran has nothing to apologize for," he said. "The Iraq veteran has served with the same of the finest traditions of any other generation at war."
His enlistment into the Army in 1999 came under an unusual circumstance. While attending college he was a theater student whose passion for Stephen Sondheim songs inspired him to create a production paying tribute to the musical theater composer. Unfortunately for Bellavia, Sondheim pursued legal action which included a $1,000 price to drop further actions. It was the opportunity to make a fast thousand bucks to settle that legal matter which drew Bellavia to the military.
Recognizing a love of the arts that defines Bellavia as a more well-rounded citizen, WBFO asked him how he defines the ideal American citizen.
"I think it's just anyone who sees the country as greater than themselves, anyone who sees their community as more important than the individual," he replied. "What makes a good citizen is who sees themselves as a part of the team.
"You don't have to do it with a rifle and a grenade. You can do it with an extra two hours at a library, or a church or wherever you worship. It's really about seeing yourself as not the one who needs to eat first."
Bellavia, who is also a former congressional candidate, has published his war memoirs in a book, House to House, which was released in 2007. His other decorations include the Silver Star, Bronze Star and the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross.